Modern comedy? We owe it all to one man...

Dave Cohen sings the praises of Alexei Sayle

Okay, you’re reading this now, which by my reckoning makes you either a comedian, or you want to be a comedian, or you work in the industry, or you’re a fan, or you’re the editor of the Chortle Correspondents site, or you’ve been sent here by a faulty search engine while looking for Leonard Cohen songs. Whatever the case, apart from the last one, I have one simple question…

…do you get up every morning and offer up your sincerest thanks to Alexei Sayle?

If you don’t, you should.

We are all here because of Alexei Sayle. You reading this site, me writing this article, Russell Brand, Jack Dee, the King’s Head open spot, Mark the doorman at the Comedy Store, Harry Hill, the teenage Avalon intern who books Al Murray’s cabs home from the TV studio – we all owe our jobs and passions to one man.

Stand-up comedy existed before Alexei Sayle, and there were many more successful comics who followed immediately after. But there was no one who had the impact, who caught the mood of the time in such a way, and who was to have such an influence over the future of stand-up comedy, than the tight-suited, self-styled Mister Fat Bastard.

Before Alexei there were three ways for comedy performers to enter into the ‘industry’ in the early 1970s – not that it was remotely an industry at the time, more an ad hoc collection of radio and television producers who made comedy programmes, mainly for the BBC.

You were either working class, and slogged your way up through the Working Mens’ Club circuit: or you were middle/upper class and went to Oxford or Cambridge University, where you joined a troupe of sketch actors to perform at the Edinburgh Festival, and TV producers gathered to sign you up to write sketches for the Two Ronnies - the apprenticeship required on the way to being given your own programme.

Finally there was the folk music scene, which brought performers of comic songs and routines such as Jasper Carrott, Billy Connolly, Richard Digance and Mike Harding to the attention of a wider audience. There were a few mavericks who defied pigeonholing - Tommy Cooper, of course, Les Dawson, Morecambe and Wise – but the nearest we had in this country to a prototype for the modern stand-up comic was Dave Allen.

Alexei Sayle was the first comedian who came from our generation, the first one to speak our language. He wasn’t non-sexist and non-racist because someone told him to be, he just had more relevant things to talk about than mothers-in-law and immigrants. He was punk comedy, our own version of the Sex Pistols, he exploded onto the scene and was unlike anything we’d come across before.

I was in a cinema in Cardiff one wet afternoon, reviewing The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball for my local newspaper, wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life, when this enormous ball of Liverpudlian energy practically filled the screen with comedic anger. By the time I’d stopped clutching my sides in pain from laughing, I knew what I was going to do with my life. Well, I didn’t know exactly that I was going to be an averagely successful jobbing stand-up comic who’d pack it in after a decade or so, but I knew my film-reviewing days were numbered.

You could argue that Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson were just as influential, but to me - and I’m running with this punk analogy now – they were more like The Clash. It was the Pistols, and their attitude, and the fact that they had no training or qualifications, that defined punk. The Clash learned their skills in the creative hothouses of the British art schools – which at the time were crammed with lecturers who had recently been made redundant from academic experimental music courses. Rik and Ade picked up their performing skills and love of Samuel Beckett at Drama School. Coincidentally Sayle went to art college, which was really no place to learn comedy.

So far I’ve failed to mention one other member of this comedy gang from that era. Ben Elton was at drama college with Rik and Ade, and came to join them when they first started performing at alternative comedy clubs in London. Like everyone around him, Elton was massively influenced by Alexei, and his early performances were a poor carbon copy of the master.

Everybody told him to go away and find his own voice, but as far as Ben was concerned he didn’t need to – he’d already found Alexei’s. Except where Sayle had anger, Elton shouted. Where Sayle had subtle political insight, Elton attacked ‘Thatch’ with a sledgehammer. And where Sayle had surrealism, Elton had jokes about British Rail sandwiches.

To Alexei Sayle fans, and those of us who had been performing on the circuit for a while, Ben Elton the TV stand-up in the late 1980s was a hideous parody of everything we thought we were trying to do in the clubs. To me at the time, saying you were a stand-up comedy fan because you liked Ben Elton was a bit like saying you liked reggae because you listened to The Police.

What we didn’t see, or didn’t want to see, was that Elton had other gifts. First, he was a prolific writer, so there wasn’t time to dwell on the quality of his material. Also, although his lambasting of the Tories lacked subtlety, there was no one else at the time doing anything like it. Finally, and most important, Elton was the first stand-up from this generation who had worked out how to tailor that material for the TV. The mass audience for ‘alternative’ comedy was born.

In the early days of alternative comedy, Sayle’s explosive live act never quite translated to the small screen. He was almost too big and too complex for the banal little box. Like many who followed him – Eddie Izzard and Lee Evans spring to mind – to fully appreciate Alexei you had to see him live.

In the late 1970s The Police sneered in photographs and Sting had spiky hair, but that was about as punk as they got. Musically they were as far from the basic spirit of punk as Elton was from alternative comedy – yet they became the first commercially successful British group of the genre.

And the contradiction at the heart of stand-up was resolved in the same way it had been with punk. The comedy establishment, the people who brought us Terry And June, had no idea what to do with it, and how to harness its phenomenal energy. Then someone with anti-establishment credentials came along and appealed to a much wider audience. Suddenly anger against the establishment and big business, was big business. Comedy became a career choice, and more of an industry, so old farts like me could ramble on about how alternative comedy had lost its soul, while making a living out of it.

The truth is, none of us would be here without Ben Elton – but then Ben Elton wouldn’t have been who he was without Alexei Sayle.

Yes indeed, ladies and gentlemen.

Published: 11 Jul 2008

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